The American Review

(3.5 STARS)

The American is an altogether new breed of spy film—one that almost completely disregards plot and action in favor of character. It’s quite straightforward, which ironically makes it unconventional. It regularly plays with the viewer’s expectations, but in such a way that it will frustrate many. Director Anton Corbijn and his star, George Clooney, deserve credit for the kind of film they made—one that’s beautiful, simple, and very uncommercial.

The bulk of the film takes place in the Italian countryside, but things open in Sweden. We meet Jack (George Clooney) and the two things he lives for, women and killing. As the latter robs him of the former, we realize Jack is a man who hates himself for what he is (an assassin), but he can’t live a normal life. He has some understandable trust issues and is forced to always look over his shoulder to see if his time has come.

After the events of Sweden, Jack’s handler, Pavel (Johan Leysen), sends him to Italy while things quiet down. He later contacts Jack for a job—build a customized weapon for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). While Jack waits for parts, he does some minimal socializing with the locals. He dines with the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and he becomes a regular customer to Clara (Violante Placido), a local prostitute. As things develop with Clara, and his mission proceeds toward its conclusion, Jack is forced to think about his job and his life. What’s important to him? Will he ever be able to trust anyone again? And can he walk away from it all?

The American‘s plot is minimal, and as a result, things progress glacially. Many will no doubt see this as a negative, but I appreciated the pace for allowing us to ponder who this man is and what drives him. I began to feel something for Jack. Despite the fact that he’s cold and a murderer, I recognized the fact that he can’t ever stop doing what he is doing. Not only is it something he’s great at, but he also can’t allow himself to get close to anyone. The one time he lets his guard down might also be the last.

Without chases or long scenes full of exposition, Corbijn has the time to fill the film with gorgeous shots of the Italian countryside. This is undoubtedly one of the prettiest films to grace the screen this year, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise (Corbijn is a noted photographer). Even besides the scenic shots, some of the camera movements are inventive and beautiful.

George Clooney, who is one of my favorite working actors, gives another stellar performance, but it certainly isn’t the kind of performance we except from the actor. Jack is almost the anti-Clooney (except for the fact that women are drawn to him, also). He exudes almost no charisma. He doesn’t crack any jokes. And he doesn’t like to be around people—not one bit. He likes sex, but that’s presumably the only thing that keeps him sane. It’s clear that this is a man who hates himself, or at least hates what he has become. Every time he accomplishes something or impresses himself in some way (like when he assembles a complex gun in seconds), he smiles to himself wryly, but then gives off the impression that he is disgusted with himself. I thought this was a much bigger challenge for the actor than he usually gives himself (as good as he was in Up in the Air, the character wasn’t too different from Clooney the man), and he comes through in spades.

The rest of the cast is comprised entirely of unknowns (or at least they were to me). The best of the bunch is Violante Placido, who is the film’s heart. She offers (or at least appears to offer) Jack an escape from his life. At first, this escape is purely sexual, but as their relationship grows, it seems as if Jack can actually get out and start anew. But credit the actress for never making it clear whether or not she is playing Jack for a sucker.

Had Clooney not starred in this film, there is no way it would have been released outside New York and Los Angeles. It’s the kind of film that engages, but doesn’t necessarily excite. It’s clear audiences aren’t going into this film knowing what it really is (exit polling has been atrocious, and the audience I saw it with left grumbling loudly), but I actually found it to be quite worthwhile. Besides being just gorgeous, this is a film that confounds by being simpler, more cerebral, and more character-focused than any other “thriller” in recent memory.

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